Speed by Celestino Deleyto

Written by Celestino Deleyto. Posted in CCSBlog

Two rolls in the hay and a close-up 

Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)

Celestino Deleyto  

Speed, one of the most successful action-adventure blockbusters of the nineties, fulfils the expectations of aficionados with its adrenaline-releasing story of supermacho heroics and non-stop action, but, looked at in retrospect, it surprisingly reveals a beating heart in the middle of all the sound and the fury. The film uses the ambiguous sexuality of Keanu Reeves’s star persona, Sandra Bullock’s feisty-cum-romantic heroine image, Dennis Hopper’s larger-than-life campy villain and even Jeff Daniels’s decent-guy meanings to tell a different story, a story which is about sex, rivalry and homosocial bonding. Beyond all the spectacular action set-pieces, it seems to me that there are three crucial moments in the film: Reeves’s Jack Traven and Bullock’s Annie Porter’s dramatic exit from the soon-to-be-blasted-to-pieces bus and their roll together on the landing strip; a parallel later scene, now on top of the subway train, in which Jack does another tandem roll, this time with Hopper’s Howard Payne; and an earlier close-up of Jeff Daniels’s Harry Temple when he realises that he is about to be blown to bits. I’d like to link these three moments together in order to suggest a different reading of the film’s meanings.

Eve Sedgwick has persuasively argued that the history of patriarchy and patriarchal narratives has been characterised not, as it would seem at first sight, by the prominence of heterosexual relationships but, rather, by male homosocial desire, i.e., by the privileging of all types of male-to-male relationships (friendship, love, sexual desire, rivalry, jealousy, etc.) over the relations between men and women. In this scenario, although heterosexual desire has remained very visible, men’s relationships with women have generally been subordinated to those with other men. For her, it is male homosocial desire and not heterosexual desire that makes the world go round. Once this insight has been assimilated, it is astonishing how many stories, including those told by popular films, smoothly fit Sedgwick’s template. A favourite pattern is for a love story between a man and a woman to apparently take centre stage in order to hide its true motor: the man’s love, admiration, desire or friendship for another man. Another favourite pattern of patriarchal stories is to present both types of relationships, heterosexual and homosocial, as perfectly compatible, as devoid of tensions. On the other hand, not all stories are the same. Romantic comedies, for example, would not exist without the premise that love and erotic desire (generally between a man and a woman, although not necessarily) are more important than anything else. More interesting, however, are those stories in which heterosexual desire and male homosocial bonding are presented as incompatible and mutually exclusive, and the latter as the thing that has to be dropped on the road to the hero's maturity. Unexpectedly, for a film initially committed to the buddy-film structure, Speed tells one of these stories.  

At the beginning of the film, Jack Traven is a devoted explosives expert of the LAPD. His friendship and professional partnership and compatibility with his team mate Harry, including the usual rivalry and sexual banter, is the most important thing in his life. Harry is the brains and Jack is the brawn and they form the perfect couple. Once arch-villain Howard Payne enters the story, he immediately becomes interested in Jack, for reasons that are not all that easy to fathom, and a worried Harry, who has been wounded by Jack in order to save him during the only showdown between the three of them, slowly recedes into the background. The frequent expressions of worry about the progress of the investigation that we catch in Jeff Daniels’ face can also be interpreted as expressions of his anxiety at the prospect of losing his partner to somebody else. So far so good: a homosocial triangle in which two men fight in the distance for their common object of desire. The three of them seem relatively comfortable with this scenario and we always have the impression that they know all the protocols and how to behave in it. But then Annie comes in the scene unreasonably demanding, as women often do in mainstream and not so mainstream narratives, the hero’s undivided attention, and during their bumpy bus ride, to the male homosocial community's dismay, he becomes interested. The metaphorical roll in the hay at the airport clinches it, as even Reeves’s famous woodenness melts down next to Annie’s body. Harry, whose job has always been to be prescient, guesses this and, on the surface level, the close-up before he dies may show his awareness that he is not of this world anymore, but underneath he understands that something worse is about to happen: womanhood has quickly gone from interfering to taking over. In the final reel, Hopper’s persistence in not dying when he should is revealed as his last desperate attempt to save Jack for homosociality. He even has a go at reproducing the tumble with Sandra Bullock, but the young hero is a lost cause and the villain is finally violently and expediently offed by the film to the glee of an audience that maybe doesn’t realise all they are cheering for. Beyond its blockbuster pyrotechnics, Speed shows a relatively rare awareness of gender politics and proposes to its viewers a fantasy of disruption of one of patriarchy’s best guarded power strategies.  

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